Franc about needs, France beefs up tourism

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NEW YORK -- Many countries pay lip service to the importance of tourism to their economies -- appointing ministers, establishing tourist boards, printing glossy brochures -- and then under-fund or mismanage it all.

But France -- reeling, like many destinations, from the worldwide drop in tourism because of terrorism, a poor global economy and war -- put its money where its mouth is earlier this month, boosting its tourism promotion budget by 40%, or about $4.5 million, for the remainder of this year and in 2004.

That decision was made at a recent, unprecedented gathering of one-third of the country's top government officials, who also drew up plans for a worldwide market relaunch of the France brand.

In addition, the government reaffirmed its commitment to existing efforts, such as the decade-old Bonjour service training program and the French Government Tourist Office's (FGTO) "Let's Fall in Love Again" recovery campaign and France Certified Agent specialist program in the U.S.

Key to the reinvigorated effort will be a France Quality Plan, still under development, designed to improve the caliber of French tourism product and promote it to international consumers, said Jean-Philippe Perol, new director of the FGTO in the U.S.

"Today in tourism, the main point is quality," Perol said. "Even a tourist who stays in a one-star hotel now wants quality, and in a country like France, where costs traditionally are quite high, we can't support anything of low quality."

One idea is to develop a new brand or logo to be used by suppliers who epitomize high quality; another is to distill and disseminate France's exacting and complex environmental, consumer and quality standards in user-friendly, simple terms international visitors can comprehend and appreciate.

At the same time, officials want to take France's sometimes haughty image down a notch; for example, plans are afoot for nationwide Gastronomy Day promotions intended to demystify and make accessible the country's possibly intimidating haute cuisine and fine wine cultures.

"The idea is to change the idea of French gastronomy just as we change the image of France," said Perol. "It's seen as perhaps too sophisticated and no fun, but it can be both sophisticated and a lot of fun, though we've been poor at communicating that."

These efforts are particularly important when it comes to the vital U.S. market; it's no secret many Americans would regard "French service" and "French friendliness" as oxymorons.

However, the Bonjour training program, which seeks to sensitize French tourism workers to foreign expectations and demands via a seminar series and print materials, has been an unqualified success, Perol said.

He said many in French tourism "now understand that we're in a business where service is everything, and that in tourism people have to adapt to their clients."

To help further disabuse U.S. travelers of the notion of French arrogance, the FGTO in New York will see its budget rise to $5.5 million in 2004.

The funds will power the continuation of "Let's Fall in Love Again," a two-pronged effort to promote affordable travel product from the U.S. and convince Americans they'll receive a warm welcome in France.

Perol said the campaign, launched this summer, already is doing wonders: U.S. arrivals for September are projected to surpass those in the same month last year, though overall figures for all of 2003 still are expected to drop 9% to 13%.

Particulars of next year's edition of the campaign have not been worked out, but the year-old Club France loyalty program -- which offers cardholders discounts of 10% to 30% at more than 1,500 French establishments -- will figure front and center.

What won't figure in at all is politics. Although some U.S. travelers have canceled France vacations (or aren't booking them at all) due to the country's opposition to the Iraq war, Perol said the FGTO will focus on those travelers merely worried about anti-Americanism.

"We're in tourism, not politics, and the type of person who won't take a trip to France for political reasons is difficult to convince," he said.

French officials said they will continue to court U.S. travel agents. The FGTO plans to beef up its burgeoning France Certified Agent specialist program, launched last fall in cooperation with the Institute for Certified Travel Agents [now called The Travel Institute].

More than 600 U.S. agents have enrolled in the course -- which consists of a $79 educational program and $350 familiarization trip -- and 170 already have passed and been certified.

Up to 80 additional agents will be certified by year-end, according to the FGTO, which also is planning a new series of agent seminars and operator roundtables this fall.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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